Authoritarian Socialism and the Anarchist Alternative

This is the second of two essays I submitted for university this week. For this one the question prompt I chose was “Does socialism always tend towards authoritarianism?” Short answer was no, but I had to write about 1799 more words so this is the long answer talking about the State, Russia, Spain, and anarchism and a bit of democratic confederalism. Title is iffy and unimaginative because screw putting effort into that. All references are down the bottom. Enjoy

Socialism is a school of thought most simply defined by its opposition to capitalism (Heywood 2021: 75). This is, however, an extremely broad range of ideas and there has been much conflict within and between nations, parties and movements about what, and who, constitutes true socialist ideals. Perhaps the greatest of these is the antagonism between democratic and authoritarian visions of socialism. The Twentieth Century saw the rise of authoritarian socialism, manifested primarily through the Russian Revolution in October 1917 and the horrors of the Stalinist regime, and in China under Mao’s Communist Party.

The purpose of this essay is to argue that there is an alternative to authoritarian socialism – indeed, that a socialist society is in fact an inherently free and equal one, and that what we consider “communist” powers were socialist in name alone. Socialism will be defined in this context, alongside a critique of the role of the state. The revolutions in Russia during 1917 and their aftermaths, as well as the success and subsequent suppression of the anarchist CNT-FAI in Spain during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s, will be explored to provide historical context and precedent. Finally, an anarchist view of socialism will be considered and proposed.

Socialism and the State

George Orwell, himself a democratic socialist who, when he fought against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, sympathised greatly with the anarchists, wrote what he felt the general sense of socialism was in Homage to Catalonia. ‘It is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society or nothing at all.’ He was dismissive of ‘party-hacks and sleek little professors’ who degraded socialism to mean nothing more than ‘planned state capitalism with the grab motive intact.’ (Orwell 1938: 88). Socialism is commonly understood to mean worker ownership and control of the means of production, but there was a split between mainstream communists and what became the anarchist movement about this relationship.

Specifically, there was a split between Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin over property: ‘Those who followed Marx in advocating the ownership of collective property by the State began to be called “state” or “authoritarian communists”, while those like Bakunin who advocated ownership directly by the workers’ associations were called “anti-authoritarian communists”… or “communist anarchists”.’ (Marshall 2010: 282). This state socialism is what Marx, later adopted by Lenin, called the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, essentially the ‘proletariat organised as the ruling class.’ (Lenin 1992: 23). Bakunin opposed this, stating that ‘not even the pseudo-popular state’ could represent the will of the masses, and rejecting the notion of ‘an educated and thereby privileged minority which supposedly understands the real interests of the people better than the people themselves.’ (Bakunin 1990: 24).

Bakunin predicted the state, even a ‘revolutionary state’, could never lead to socialism because the state was inherently coercive. It centralises power within a minority over the majority based on the ‘presumed stupidity of the one and the presumed intelligence of the other’, resulting in the ‘doctrinaire revolutionaries’ merely replacing the dictatorship of the bourgeois as political and economic masters. Bakunin saw this taking place in Europe, claiming followers of Marx took ‘the side of the state and its supporters against popular revolution’ as self-preservation becomes paramount. (Bakunin 1990: 137). A popular phrase of his succinctly sums it up: ‘it will scarcely be any easier on the people if the cudgel with which they are beaten is called the people’s cudgel.’ (Bakunin 1990: 23).

Revolution to Dictatorship in Russia

In the case of the Soviet Union under Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Bakunin’s prediction came to be true. While there were a number of what Noam Chomsky called mainstream ‘left Marxists’ (Chomsky 1989) who labelled it a ‘right-wing deviation’, Lenin’s commandeering of the Russian Revolution crushed all prospects for a socialist society as understood by the popular movement – workers’ control. Chomsky, citing figures like Rosa Luxembourg and others, was critical of Lenin’s ‘opportunistic vanguardism’, whereby the ‘radical intelligentsia were going to exploit popular movements to seize state power and then to use that state power to whip the population into the society that they chose.’ (Chomsky 1989).

After the February Revolution in 1917, in which the Tsar was removed from power, a Provisional Government was created that set about legislating liberal reforms and continuing the war effort. Dissatisfied with the lack of real change, the soldiers, sailors and workers created a number of councils called soviets, with delegates to connect with other soviets and ultimately bring the popular interests to the Government (Berkman 1972: 135). Rather than wait for laws to be passed, Alexander Berkman (a Russian anarchist who lived in the United States) described how the people ‘expropriated’ land and industry from their ‘owners’, the capitalist class who ‘had no right to monopolise the things they had appropriated from the labouring classes, from the people.’ (Berkman 1972: 137).

Soldiers began abandoning the frontlines of the war and the soviets gained more power, leading the Provisional Government under Kerensky to desperately try and prevent the revolutionary tide. They failed, and it was to this swell of popular movement that Lenin returned to Russia from exile and led the Bolsheviks to overthrow the Provisional Government in November 1917 (the October Revolution by an old calendar) with popular support to realise the freedoms gained in February. But as Berkman points out, Lenin and the Bolshevik’s goal was ‘to gain entire and exclusive control of the government for their Party’, thus necessitating, in their view, the destruction or takeover of the soviets and the workers’ councils. (Berkman 1972: 151).

As described by Berkman and Chomsky (1989), Lenin carried this out with great success, dismantling the soviets and centralising all ownership and control to the one-party State bureaucracy run, unsurprisingly, by Lenin and his inner circle. Popular and violent opposition to this perceived betrayal of the revolution was suppressed, perhaps most notably the crushing of the Kronstadt Uprising. Sailors and workers in Kronstadt voted on and passed a resolution on 28 February 1921, listing 15 demands essentially calling for the freedom, equality, and worker control desired by the people in 1917. With propaganda and force, the Kronstadt Soviet was attacked in March and April by Lenin and Trotsky’s Red Army, with the soviet dissolving, many killed or exiled, and the city being occupied. (Mett 2017).

Given that historians and some defenders of Marx’s theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat (for example, Hill 1947; Ypi 2020) contend that it is ‘an immense expansion of democracy’ (Lenin, cited in Hill 1947: 85-86) and ‘embodies the democratic rule of the oppressed majority of people’, whereby the institutions of this proletarian state do not ‘abolish existing freedoms’ but ‘give them a more radical form’ (Ypi 2020), the Russian Revolution led by Lenin’s reversion to the vanguardism of his earlier work was the death knell for socialism in Russia. If Marx’s vision of a ‘democratic dictatorship’ was adhered to, it is possible to imagine state socialism could have been achieved in 1917, leading to the withering away of the State (Engels and Marx 1848). Bakunin, however, was correct in his critique of the state (above) in relation to popular revolution, and as those like Berkman, Chomsky, Mett, etc. demonstrate, the potential for a decentralised model of socialism was very real and silenced for that reason.

We need not cover the record under Stalin.

The Anarchist Alternative

Anarchism, while it has never gained a dominant influence over a large area beyond Spain in the early 1900’s, is perhaps even broader than socialism in scope and its indirect effects on various strands of thought and action. Whereas socialism tends to have a more concrete focus on class, anarchist thought lends itself to any struggle against power and hierarchy. Figures such as Louise Michel, who played a strong role in the short-lived Paris Commune, and Emma Goldman (a Russian anarchist in America like Berkman) helped pioneer the impact of women in the anarchist movement. While not defined as anarchist, movements like the Zapatistas in Central America, or the Kurdish push for self-determination in Rojava (influenced by Abdullah Ocalan’s democratic confederalism), apply an anarchist-like system of governance. Writers like Murray Bookchin take an extensive ecological lens. Francisco Ferrer, before being executed, set out a model for a school based on anarchist principles.

Peter Marshall explains this using the image of water: ‘anarchism is like a river with many currents and eddies, constantly changing and being refreshed by new surges, but always moving towards the wide ocean of freedom.’ (Marshall 2010: 3). Rudolf Rocker, writing as the anarchists in Spain fought against both the fascists under Franco and the Communists backed by Stalin’s USSR, said its aim was ‘a federation of free communities which shall be bound to one another by their common economic and social interests and shall arrange their affairs by mutual agreement and free contract.’ (Rocker 2004: 1).

What makes anarchism distinct from ‘authoritarian communism’ is, as mentioned above, its rejection of a centralised state power. Just before the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution, Diego Abad de Santillan put it strongly: ‘it must be a task of the Revolution to finish with the State. Either the Revolution gives social wealth to the producers in which case the producers organise for collective distribution and the State has nothing to do; or the Revolution does not give social wealth to the producers, in which case the Revolution has been a lie and the State would continue.’ (de Santillan, cited in Chomsky 2013: 5).

The anarcho-syndicalists in Spain, if only for a short while, did manage to become a force of its own in Catalonia. Industries were seized by unions and different factions, workers were armed with fairly decentralised militias formed, and, where what little sympathetic press operated, there was a real sense of potential for the Revolution. There was, however, much infighting between factions, namely the anarchists and left-wing socialists against the more powerful and numerous right-wing communists and liberals, the latter having the backing of the USSR. According to Orwell, the communist thesis was that a revolution would be fatal, therefore they moved to suppress the revolution and prop up bourgeois democracy. (Orwell 1938). Whether the anarchists, with or without a unified front with the communists, could have defeated the fascists is mere speculation, but they gave us a glimpse at what a truly socialist society could achieve.

Despite threats from various forces from Syria, Turkey, and Iraq (escalated following Donald Trump’s withdrawal from Syria in 2019), the Kurdish people in Rojava have managed to create a surprisingly similar and vibrant vision. Ocalan, a political prisoner in Turkey, turned away from nation states and centralised power in his philosophy, instead opting for confederalism and autonomous regions. He describes it as a system where ‘all groups of the society and all cultural identities express themselves in local meetings, general conventions, and councils.’ (Ocalan, cited in Scully 2020: 104). Politics, to Ocalan, is a part of everyday life and for every member of the society. Communes, co-operatives, unions, and various other organisations come together at the local level to make decisions and work upwards. Coordination is carried out by delegates and specialists across wider regions for broader issues, rather than top-down decision making by a single party or administration (Scully 2020).

When considered through this lens, socialism has the potential to be an immensely democratic system built on self-realisation and expression and a focus on community wellbeing. History is intentionally dominated by the horrors of ‘authoritarian socialism’, by both socialism’s ideological opponents and those who wish to garner international support through association with socialism. But for every oppressive regime, there are those who resist and fight for something more free and just. Whatever form that takes, genuine socialism should always strive to improve lives and communities from the grassroots level.


Bakunin, Mikhail 1990 Statism and Anarchy Boston: Cambridge University Press.

Berkman, Alexander 1972 The ABC of Anarchism New York: Dover Publications

Chomsky, Noam, 1989 Noam Chomsky on Leninism, 15 March. Accessed 10 October 2021. Available at

Chomsky, Noam 2013 On Anarchism London: Penguin Books.

Engels, Friedrich; Marx, Karl 1848 The Communist Manifesto.

Heywood, Andrew 2021 Political Ideologies: An Introduction 7th ed. London: Red Globe Press.

Hill, Christopher 1947 Lenin and the Russian Revolution London: English University Press.

Lenin, Vladimir 1992 The State and Revolution London: Penguin Books.

Marshall, Peter 2010 Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism Oakland: PM Press.

Mett, Ida 2017 The Kronstadt Uprising London: Theory and Practice.

Orwell, George 1938 Homage to Catalonia London: Penguin Books.

Rocker, Rudolf 2004 Anarcho-Syndicalism Edinburgh: AK Press.

Scully, Jess 2020 Glimpses of Utopia: Real Ideas for A Fairer World Sydney: Pantera Press.

Ypi, Lea 2020 ‘Democratic dictatorship: Political legitimacy in Marxist perspective’, European Journal of Philosophy 28(2): 277-291.

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